Who are these “Unitarian Bahá’í” we’ve been hearing about?
If a theological unitarianism is meant, why use the term “Unitarian Bahá’í” at all? Have you ever met an avowed trinitarian Bahá’í?
If we are to take the term seriously, we ought to seek to understand its meaning in context. The term has come to be associated with the Behaists, an early 20th Century Bahá’í splinter group whose distinguishing doctrine was a rejection of the divinity, i.e. infallibility, of `Abdu’l-Bahá’, the leader of the Bahá’í religion at the time. The point, then, of using the term “unitarian” in this context, is to indicate a rejection of the divinity (infallibility) of any man. This makes sense, for the deification of any man is tantamount to polytheism.
The problem I’ve always had with the Behaists calling themselves Unitarians is that they never had a problem deifying Bahá’u’lláh himself.
Frankly, I happen to believe that most Bahá’ís are trinitarians, because their theology of Manifestation owes much to Christian theology. This is also true of those who call themselves “Unitarian Bahá’ís.”
The home page for the Unitarian Baha’i discussion group states:
The Unitarian Bahai faith is a movement of Bahaism that teaches that none of the successors of the prophet Baha’u’llah are infallible …
A true unitarian would not deify any man. A unitarian Bahá’í would be a Bahá’í who lives as a Bahá’í without any belief in the infallibility of Bahá’u’lláh.
I personally believe that a Bahá’í can be a unitarian. It’s not as if I don’t know of any true unitarians among the Bahá’ís, but I hesitate to single them out for fear of what might be done to them.
Many, probably most, of the modern-day Unitarian Bahais don’t believe Bahaullah was infallible either. And many are involved to one degree or another in the Unitarian Universalist churches, a decidedly liberal spiritual tradition that is incompatible with the literal deification of any human being.
Many of the historical Unitarian Bahais (Behaists) tended to frame Bahaullah and his movement as less of a messianic theophany and more of a progressive spiritual and social reform initiated by a bold and charismatic leader. That’s not true of all of them — a noteworthy exception, who favored a literal theophanic view, was I.G. Kheiralla. But many of Bahaullah’s own grandchildren, such as Shua Ullah Behai and Qamar Bahai, preferred to emphasize his role as a spiritual and social reformer and to frame all of the great prophets/manifestations this way, in contrast to Shoghi Effendi’s emphasis on Bahaullah’s claims of a theophanic station.
Just as there are Haifan Baha’is who don’t literally believe in the infallibility of Baha’u’llah, there may indeed be Behaists who don’t literally believe in the infallibility of Baha’u’llah, but that is not how you’re defining “Unitarian Baha’is.” You’re defining it as a schismatic group that distinguishes itself by denying the infallibility of the immediate *successor* of Baha’u’llah. That doesn’t make a person a unitarian; it makes them the opposition to a particular successor, embracing specific accusations against that successor. Without rejecting infallibility in general, this group cannot rightfully be regarded as unitarian.
And there are those who would say that the Unitarian Universalists cannot rightfully call themselves Unitarian because Unitarianism emerged as a reactionary Christian theological movement against Trinitarianism, whereas UUs today are mostly not Christian or Christ-centered at all, and in some cases not even theological (denying the existence of Theos).
But I don’t think the meaning of words has to be limited to their original usage — meanings evolve over time. There are different versions of Unitarianism, some Christian and theological, some non-Christian and non-theological. The Unitarianism of the Behaists was based on an Islamic concept of Unitarianism, meaning the belief in One God rather than polytheism. Behaists or Unitarian Bahais historically argued that the Abdul-Baha/Shoghi Effendi school of thought, based on the notion of a “Covenant” of infallible authority, was tantamount to joining partners with God. I would argue that believing in Bahaullah’s infallibility — or that of any prophet or spiritual leader — would also be joining partners with God, and therefore I reject it, because I am theologically Unitarian.
Perhaps those among the Unitarian Bahais, either historically or in the present day, who believe Bahaullah was infallible are not Unitarian enough.
Eric, I believe that you are a unitarian. I cannot, however, accept your pushing of this false unitarian label for this irrelevant group, if indeed they can be called a group.
So ‘unitarian’ simply means ‘monotheist’? Why use the term at all, then, unless they’re attempting to make themselves look special? It sounds to me like they’re applying a standard to `Abdu’l-Baha’ that they’re unwilling to apply to his father. That’s called a double-standard, and as usual, that double standard indicates a two-faced position. They are every bit the idolators that they accuse the mainstream Baha’is of being, only they are more guilty of claiming to be distinguished for some kind of rigid monotheism which they clearly are aliens to.
They called themselves “Unitarian” Bahais. That’s not a label I attached to them. Its use by those people, which included the vast majority of Bahaullah’s 18 grandchildren and dozens of great-grandchildren, is well documented historically. Were they hypocrites? Maybe. They were not fully or purely Unitarian. But they certainly were more Unitarian than the mainline Baha’i tradition, which is about as close to Trinitarianism as you can get outside the Christian faith. I give them kudos for at least trying to create a more liberal version of their flawed religion than what most Baha’is have done with it.
Eric, I commend your honesty in acknowledging that the claims to a theophanic station were Baha’u’llah’s own and not something invented by ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. Igneous, you are wrong in supposing that the Baha’i concept of Manifestation is somehow derived from Christian trinitarian ideals. While the Bible certainly does talk about Jesus manifesting God as opposed to incarnating Him, as you know this is not how Trinitarians have understood those passages. The concept of Manifestation has it roots deep in Shi’ite theology, though they tended to use the term more broadly than Baha’is do.
Susan, the Baha’i notion of the mirror, the light, and the sun, or Baha’u’llah, the maiden, and God has always sounded trinitarian to me. I agree that Baha’i theology is derived from Shi’ite theology. I also recognize the deep parallels between Shit’ite theology and trinitarianism. Coincidence? Actually I believe it is, because it’s a natural theology for anyone who wants to deify a man to make.
… and, Eric, per Susan’s comment, did you suggest somewhere that Baha’u’llah never claimed to be a Manifestation of God? Or that he wasn’t infallible? Or that it was appropriate to question him? Please send me a link if you did.
Susan: Yes, I acknowledge that Bahaullah made theophanic claims. However, I tend to believe that he did this because he interpreted and framed his own spiritual experiences and convictions in light of Babism. Had he been a Muslim instead of a Babi, I suspect he would have become a Sufi shaykh or a prominent reformer similar to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (founder of Ahmadiyya).
Dan: I wrote the following on http://www.bahai-faith.com (see the section on “The ‘Most Holy Book'”): “I also disagree with Baha’u’llah’s claim that all people must recognize his absolute spiritual authority and must accept and follow all the laws and teachings in his book. I do not believe in an infallible Bible nor an infallible Qur’an or any other scripture that conservative religious people believe is perfect. Although I think Baha’u’llah taught many beneficial and inspiring things in his writings, there are some things he taught that I simply disagree with – just as I disagree with some things taught by Moses, Jesus, Saint Paul, Muhammad, Buddha, or any other spiritual teacher who has left behind writings or sayings. I wish that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of all faiths would would move beyond the idea of rigid support for every law and teaching contained within their own preferred religious scripture.”
The Bible , The Coran , The Baghadavgita were infallibles in their own time. Currently the most great infallibility belongs to Bahaullah´s writings . Bahaullah mentions the idea of the Guardisnship in His ¨Will and Testament¨, thus we should look for him and continue working for the stablisment of this Beautifull Faith